Saturday, August 20, 2011

We should be philosophical about university

The heartburn Americans feel is over WHICH university or college their kid will get into. Everyone can get into something but what does the something deliver?

In Britain there is a real chance that the kid will get into no university at all, which is a very visible and upsetting failure for many families.

So how to deal with such upsets? I myself cannot help with personal insight as my son's admission to the best university in the State was never in question. He completed a full university subject (in mathematics) during his final High School year and got good marks for it.

So I turn to two approaches by British writers that may help soothe upsets. The first below asks whether bloated modern universities still offer a practical benefit to youngsters and the second points to later success by those who have initially missed the boat

1). What is a university? There’s a discussion in one of A S Byatt’s Frederica novels on the subject. One of the characters gives a beautiful description of the aims of such institutions: in essence, there’s a clue in the word.

A university must be universal: open to support inquiries concerning human understanding of medicine, law, the sciences, mathematics, the humanities. Open, too, in that it should recruit anyone for study; anyone who has the ability to benefit both themselves and the subjects in which they wish to be immersed.

I had the great luck to attend such a place, the University of Glasgow. Remember your alma mater, shouted the dean as we took our degrees, and I always will; the time I spent there remains among the best in my life. You, the British taxpayer, paid me to study for a first degree in a subject I loved: I was allowed, by you, to sink into my discipline and learn how to swim through it. You then paid me to complete doctoral research in one abstruse area of that subject which I found technically fascinating. You never once asked me to prove that the research was “worthwhile”, either in terms of the nation’s GDP or my own future employability; or that, other than through academic aptitude, I deserved the funding.

Neither before nor since have I been so free to pursue inquiry into a topic solely because of the random coincidence that I had a vague talent for it. I don’t exaggerate: I will die grateful to the society that let me do that. There were around 10,000 students at Glasgow when I started in 1986 – hold on to that number.

These days, young people (and their parents) are less likely to ask the philosophical question we opened with. Not so much “What is a university?” as “How much will it cost me to go there?”, followed by (understandably) “How much money will I earn when I’ve got my degree?” These days, there are around 20,000 students at Glasgow: double the number in just over 20 years. There are two other universities in the rest of the city, one extra over the same period. Something has to give when “access” is expanded like this: the vast fees, the concerns over degree quality, the sad complaint (because of what it says about how we view the point of education) that some graduates don’t earn huge incomes.

I do understand that it’s right that people who benefit from a system, as I have, should be expected to pay towards it. But it’s equally undeniable that the path I had through life – bright boy from a good state school goes to a great university; flourishes – is less open to the less wealthy than it was to me in 1986. And yet, more children than ever want a degree.

My partner says something similar about his career. Keith is an electrician, which he became after four years’ apprenticeship in the Department of the Environment: one day a week in college learning theory, and four days a week learning his trade. He received his “deeds” after taking an examination which sounds remarkably like my finals. These days, most skilled trade isn’t managed directly by institutions such as the one which articled Keith. The work is outsourced to third-party contractors, and so there are fewer long-term practical apprenticeships; and the exam now consists of multiple choice questions, which can be taken by anyone, regardless of how much practical work they’ve done. As with the universities, it’s not wrong to worry about a diminution of quality. It’s as though we want more electricians, but we don’t want to pay for them.

Testing the theory, I wrote to a friend who is that living emblem of quality, a London cabbie. I asked Richard how the Knowledge worked and if he had any worries about the maintenance of standards. The good news is that he doesn’t think so – yet. But he does fear that as governance of the Knowledge has moved from the Public Carriage Office (“old-fashioned but effective”) to something called “Taxi & Private Hire” within Transport for London, then one day costs – and access issues – will lead TfL to lump cabbies in with private taxi drivers. We would have more London cabbies, but one of our most venerable institutions would be gone. (Are you reading, Boris?)

This morning a huge number of children, desperate to get into university, might not make it – because the institutions, expanded beyond recognition, still don’t have sufficient places for them. Do we want yet more, vast universities? Or should we wonder if all these children will benefit from attending, in either the intellectual or the financial sense? Compared with 1986 there are more (debt-ridden) graduates, more electricians, more cabbies. The question is: are they better? Or has the drive for volume caused the loss of something precious, something universal, in our training?


2). It’s the same every damn year. We are so busy totting up the A stars, that we forget about the flops with the D grades and less who’ve nothing to shout about. The newspapers are full of golden, jubilant boys and girls, whooping and crying as they rejoice in their brilliant results; hitting the road to adulthood like greyhounds after an electric hare. Forget the clogged-up clearing system, the desperate scrabble for a diminishing number of university and college places, the world is their oyster Rockefeller.

Good for them – and I mean it, although I’d argue for a legal limit on how many weeks their parents are permitted to bang on at dinner parties about their marvellous children. The mother who is doing her best to scoop Harry off the floor and dust him off into a semblance of employability can do without a running commentary on how Tabitha is getting on with her packing for Oxford.

There are two peaks in competitive parenting: When-will–he-walk? and the tougher, what’s-next-after-school? phase. Well, for those dealing with disappointment and despairing offspring, stay out of the game. The best way to get Harry et al back on track – and see some return on your investment in school fees and parenting time – is to boost their confidence so they can make something of their lives. First mantra: It really does not matter. No, it doesn’t. Somewhere inside that child is a seed of talent. School failed to help it germinate – that is the school’s failure, not yours or your child’s. Stick to this line. There are plenty who succeeded in the University of What Now?: Sir Michael Caine, David Beckham, Winston Churchill and John Major; Mary ''Queen of Shops’’ Portas; Richard Branson, Simon Cowell, and the Apprentice Master himself, Lord Sugar – all triumphed without a university or college education.

I remember a remark that radio presenter and screenwriter Danny Baker made on Desert Island Discs. A bright child growing up in London Docklands, he says he wasn’t tempted by grammar school. “If school made you clever, the Cabinet would be full of geniuses,” he said.

Even if you don’t believe it, pretend you do. My mother did. So abysmal were my results, so low my self-esteem, that I retreated into dead-end jobs with no prospects. But three years after leaving school, I began to read, read and read. I found ''it,’’ the thing I wanted (to do) when I was ready – and the chip fell from my shoulder.

So it will be for that boy or girl who now feels that all is lost. The truth is that flunking it will make an adult of your baby, faster than you can say tuition fees.


Australian school system hit by faith in computers

Many custom built computer systems never work

It COULD be the next health payroll debacle - but this time it involves Queensland state schools. Problems with the OneSchool computer system have left hundreds of schools complaining of mix-ups with contractors' pay and other bills, leaving their budgets in disarray and "dangerous workloads".

One school was threatened with having its electricity disconnected after a bill was wrongly recorded as paid. Some schools have not paid contractors in time.

Staff have been working weekends to fix the problems, with some allegedly on the verge of nervous breakdowns.

Alex Scott, secretary of Together (formerly known as the Queensland Public Sector Union), said the problems mirrored the health payroll disaster because the department appeared to be in denial about how bad the problems were. "The department must delay the expansion of the rollout of the system until they get it right," he said. "Queensland schools can't afford a health payroll-style disaster."

But late yesterday Education Queensland director-general Julie Grantham said they had decided to delay the final rollout to all state schools, to allow time to fix glitches and support administrators. It followed an order from Education Minister Cameron Dick for more staff training and support.

The OneSchool system is used universally by state schools to produce academic reports, create curriculum and record student details. But it has been the third phase - the rollout of a financial module which was implemented in 635 schools during the last school holidays - which has sparked the most concern.

Queensland Association of State School Principals president Hilary Backus said their biggest concern had been the delays in getting help for problems, which included bills and accounts payable, invoices and bank reconciliations.

But she said QASSP was satisfied the department was doing everything it could to deal with the problems and the system would be better in the long run, once these were sorted out.

Mr Scott said the union had received "hundreds of reports of excessive and dangerous workloads being created by this system". "We've had reports of electricity and maintenance bills not being paid by schools, despite the system showing otherwise," Mr Scott said. "Schools staff are being pushed to the limit to make sure schools can do business."

Problems identified by The Courier-Mail include:

* Supplier details either uploaded incorrectly or not at all, resulting in wrong suppliers being sent invoices. Suppliers that should have been paid within certain time frames were not.

* One school was sent an electricity disconnection notice despite their system telling them the bill had been paid.

* Daily problems with the way bank information was uploaded.

* A budget tool not working, leaving principals with no idea whether they were on, ahead or behind on their budget.

* Staff losing almost-completed work data because OneSchool was timing out with no visible warning.

* Departmental IT support staff taking longer than a week to get back to schools on OneSchool problems.

Ms Grantham said the problems had been a mixture of glitches - which they were fixing as they came up - and human error, which was natural as staff got used to the system. She said schools which took on the system in the June/July holidays had all applied to do so, and said they were ready.

While the State Opposition has compared OneSchool problems to the payroll disaster, Ms Grantham has vehemently denied it. She said OneSchool had nothing to do with the staff payroll. "The system itself as a whole is a very good system, but yes, there have been some processing functions that haven't gone as smoothly as they could."

Mr Dick said OneSchool was a good program that was well supported. "School staff want more support and training and that is what I have directed the director-general to do to."


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